NATO’s 1999 aggression against Yugoslavia marked a turning point for imperialism

By Dave McKee

This spring marks the 75th anniversary of NATO’s founding on April 4, 1949. It also marks the 25th anniversary of NATO’s vicious bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. This was an aggression that the Canadian government eagerly supported and participated in, and it set the stage for a turning point in international affairs.

By the late 20th century, in the wake of the end of the Cold War and in the context of deep economic crisis, Western imperialism was presented with both the need and the opportunity to reorient its global strategy, and NATO was the chosen tool.

Nearly 100 years earlier, Rudyard Kipling had penned “The White Man’s Burden” to promote humanitarian intervention as a moral imperative and, conveniently, a way for Britain and the US to scoop up portions of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The NATO states revisited this idea and began updating it. As in Kipling’s era, the competitive imperialist drive to re-divide the world in the 1990s was justified through moral arguments.

However, a key obstacle remained – the principle of the sovereignty of states. Edward S. Herman noted in 2013 that imperialism sought to permanently overcome this problem:

“…this morality surge occurred at a moment in history when the Soviet constraint was ended and the United States and its close allies were celebrating their triumph, when the socialist option had lost vitality, and when the West was thus freer to intervene. This required overriding the several hundred-year-old Westphalian core principle of international relations – that national sovereignty should be respected – which if adhered to would protect smaller and weaker countries from Great Power cross-border attacks. This rule was embodied in the UN Charter. Overriding this rule and Charter fundamental would clear the ground for [humanitarian intervention], but it would also clear the ground for classic and straightforward aggression in pursuit of geopolitical interests, for which [humanitarian intervention] might supply a useful cover.”

Accomplishing such a sweeping change would require a specific expression of the idea of humanitarian intervention. In particular, the new formulation, which came to be known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), would have to achieve the following:

  1. be carefully rooted in the existing institutions of international law, to cloak it with sufficient legitimacy that the undermining of the principle of state sovereignty would appear to be an acceptable consequence of the “evolution” of international law;
  2. change the notion of sovereignty to focus more on the responsibilities of a sovereign state, rather than its rights, in order to facilitate the depiction of target states as failing their responsibilities and thereby forfeiting their rights;
  3. develop mechanisms for quickly confirming the perpetration of atrocities and assign responsibility for such acts to the government of the target state;
  4. situate the mechanism for intervention (the military force) outside of the United Nations, in such a way that the mechanism is both independent from, and essential to the UN.

In addition to these specific features, the new humanitarian intervention framework would benefit from being presented as having emerged from a concrete, successful application in an existing situation.

The specific points of departure were the Bosnian civil war and the Rwandan tragedy in 1994.  Both of these crises were presented as internal ethnic conflicts that resulted in mass atrocities, which threatened to continue and expand, and to which the international community had a moral duty to respond. The role of foreign interference in the development of these conflicts was obscured and, in fact, the lack of foreign intervention was identified as a failure of the international community to prevent atrocities.

This promotional campaign was hugely effective – by the time of NATO’s 1999 aggression against Yugoslavia, notions of moral outrage and humanitarian duty were so deeply embedded in the public discourse that opposition to the aggression was practically neutralized in many areas. In some countries, whole sections of the peace movement not only failed to mobilize against NATO, but actually encouraged and justified its intervention.  In truth, anti-imperialist campaigns did respond, but they were generally weak and ineffective. Certainly, however, the peace and progressive forces within the countries of the imperialist camp were consumed by deep confusion and bitter divisions that resulted from the states’ misinformation campaigns. Notably, these difficulties persist to the present day, and they continue to be obstacles to developing effective anti-war campaigns.

Perhaps most interestingly, the bulk of the debate over NATO’s actions focused on the completeness or veracity of the stated pretext for intervention: preventing mass atrocities from being committed in Kosovo. Whether it was supported or challenged, the pretext for war had become the central and singular question. Debate over the real motivation for war – imperialist expansion – was kept to a minimum.

Cathy Fischer of the Regina Peace Council, a member of the Canadian Peace Congress, describes this:

“Protecting the rights of Albanians in Kosovo was the excuse for intervention. Before NATO began bombing, President Milosevic of Yugoslavia was given the option of signing the Rambouillet Agreement. This agreement meant NATO troops would occupy the whole of Yugoslavia, not just Kosovo, and it provided for privatization of their many state enterprises, including takeover by foreign companies. Milosevic refused to sign, and with this came the call for immediate ‘humanitarian intervention’ – the bombing of Yugoslavia. US-NATO planes spent 78 days, from March 24 to June 10 [1999], dropping 20,000 [tonnes of] bombs on the people…

“Along with military targets, the bombing destroyed utilities, roads, bridges, hospitals, clinics, schools, TV stations and the Chinese embassy. There was no spring planting, countless wells were poisoned, factories were destroyed putting thousands of people out of work. Many of the shells used were coated with depleted uranium, spreading deadly radioactive dust. Almost a million refugees fled the bombing. All this ‘humanitarian intervention’ because Yugoslavia had a domestically controlled economy, a strong publicly owned sector, a good and free healthcare system and its own defence industry. Its population resisted the cuts to its social programs demanded by the International Monetary Fund. It refused to allow US military bases on its soil and did not want to join NATO. So, the country was bombed to smithereens.”

The 1999 aggression against Yugoslavia was the first application of the ideas of “Responsibility to Protect”, as well as NATO’s New Strategic Concept. This is important for two key reasons. First, the aggression provided a testing ground for the new policy orientation, and the results would be used to justify the rapid institutionalization of R2P by the United Nations. Second, it concretely identified NATO as the vehicle for implementing the “moral duty” of the international community and deeply embedded NATO into the role and work of the UN.

Responsibility to Protect is the diplomatic and ideological tool, providing the moral cover necessary for the implementation of NATO’s sweeping plan to expand its role in the world.

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